Sign of The Locksmith

The free offer to repaint a two-story business sign for a Philadelphia locksmith shop that had been in business for more than one hundred years, was completely unexpected.

Robert Blackston, Temple University arts administrator, was driven to repaint the sign because he was drawn to the ethereal lettering which read: “Est. 1898, H. Henssler, Expert Locksmith. Any Lock, Any Key.”

Repainting this sign marked the beginning of an artistic initiative to revive other old ads in Philadelphia. Known as “ghost signs,” their fascination lies in their message that is both contemporary and yet lost to the mists of time. They can be found everywhere, in both large cities and small, and aficionados seek them out like buried treasure hunters and post them proudly online.

Ghost signs refer to those painted advertisements that are at least 50 years old and are found on an outside wall. Some refer to businesses that died a long time ago while others concern establishments that are still open for business. Henssler’s locksmith sign is the very first restored by the collaboration of Temple’s Tyler School of Art and the city’s Mural Arts Program.

Underlying a new and different way of invigorating civic pride lies the enduring allure of the ghost signs which symbolize the intersection of art, history and commerce. Their messages of how things used to be told with old-fashioned fonts and pictures tell stories about the industries that once dominated a neighborhood and/or the origins of a building.

Some purists like Frank Jump, who has chronicled New York’s vanishing ads on a photo blog and in a book, believes the art should remain as it is. He says: “Once you alter the sign by either trying to restore it or painting over it, you're obliterating the original work.”

But Blackson believes that the sign over the locksmith ship is about much more than just art. It’s about survival and making a living. If the business was defunct, says Blackson, then maybe it should be left to the mercy of the elements. The sign over the locksmith store took months for two Tyler students and Mural Arts staff artist, Nathaniel Lee, to paint while working on scaffolds erected outside the shop.

The Mural Arts Program has four or five more ads in mind to restore over the summer months. Executive director, Jane Golden, believes bringing these old signs to life is “honoring the past while thinking about the future.”

Here’s to history and all we can learn from it.

Posted by M Dee Dubroff, on May 25, 2013 at 2:57 PM